The strange case of conservative progressives

September 1, 2010 by · 7 Comments
Filed under: Politics, The RSA 

One of the most interesting lines in Tony Blair’s revealing book comes in the introduction:

’…I was and remain first and foremost not so much a politician of traditional left and right, but a moderniser. I wanted to modernise the Labour Party so it was capable, not intermittently but continuously, of offering a progressive alternative to Conservative rule. I wanted to modernise Britain so that, while retaining pride in having worn the mantle of the world’s most powerful nation as the twentieth century began, it didn’t feel bereft and in decline as the twenty first century began because that mantle would no longer fit’.

The admission that Blair was not a man of the left – indeed he acknowledges that on economics and law and order he is on the centre right – may appal some in the Labour Party but comes as no surprise to those of us who worked for him.

Everyday it seems a Labour leadership candidate repudiates another aspect of New Labour doctrine and record. But behind this tactical posturing there is a more profound questioning, which is of wider relevance and interest than Labour’s internal manoeuvrings.

In this month’s Prospect, two former Brown advisors Nick Pearce (now back as Director of ippr) and Gavin Kelly write about the need for social democrats to tap into a sense of ‘social patriotism’:

‘Beyond eco-conservativism, the centre-left hasn’t worked out the strands of conservative thinking that should form a core part of its political identity in the 21st century. Only when it finds a sure footing on this territory will it find a way of responding to some of the cultural concerns of the electorate that currently find expression in hostility to immigration.’

And here is Jon Cruddas MP, one of Labour’s most original and respected thinkers, writing in a few weeks ago in the New Statesman:

‘Labour has to win back…terrain with a language that can encompass both cosmopolitan modernity and English conservative culture, linking them together in a sense of national purpose. It would incorporate all the things Blair dismissed as anachronisms: tradition; a respect for settled ways of life; a sense of local place and belonging; a desire for home and rootedness; the continuity of relationships at work and in one’s neighbourhood.

England once had this kind of conservative, common culture; it acted as a counter to the commodification of labour and to social isolation. Ruskin provided its rallying cry, “There is no wealth but life.” At one time Labour gave expression to this kind of conservatism. It need not be reactionary, right-wing, or sentimental, although it has been all these things. Its political character will depend on Labour’s capacity to articulate a progressive and ethical conservatism that embraces difference. It need not be parochial or conformist: England celebrates a rich tradition of volatile, creative cultures. ‘

These ideas strike a chord. Here is an extract from an article I wrote last year in Prospect:

‘New ideas about human nature can contribute to a more substantive meeting of minds between left and right. Thoughtful conservatives are once again recognising the importance of social context, inequality and the limits to market rationality. Labour thinkers can use the research to make the case for collective action and social justice, but they may also become more cautious about the capacity of the central state to empower communities, and more interested in the role of social norms and civic institutions”
 
So as Tony Blair reminds us that he was above all a moderniser, some thinkers from the left are exploring how (small ‘c’) conservative perspectives can be incorporated in the social democratic story.

Call me a sad case, but I find this intriguing. The RSA is a strictly politically non-aligned organisation but that doesn’t mean we aren’t interested in politics. Indeed, over the last few years we have had fascinating events discussing currents in left, right and liberal thinking.

Usually when people talk about moving beyond traditional left and right it is seen as a political ploy – a form of triangulation. But exploring the possibility of philosophy and practical politics which seeks to reconcile the ideals of social justice with the insights of social conservatism is a fascinating intellectual exercise.

I see an RSA event in which social democrats and social conservatives (like Roger Scruton or Ferdinand Mount, for example) are invited to explore common ground.  Any takers?

Share

A few words about TB …

January 29, 2010 by · 20 Comments
Filed under: Politics 

Some RSA Fellows think I take on every opportunity I can to pursue media appearances, regardless of whether they are good for the Society. So I am keen to report that I have turned down at least half a dozen invitations to comment on my former Boss’ appearance at the Iraq Inquiry.

I will stay off the airways. But, for what it’s worth, here are my very brief reflections on what – between meetings – I have managed to watch today. Some people may think it is inappropriate for me to comment at all, but it is the issue of the day and relevant to many of the debates about democracy and policy which we regularly host here at the RSA.

TB was highly unlikely to say anything new. He made his case as well as could be expected and he spoke with clarity and conviction. What he said was important not just for the historical record but in relation to current foreign policy and security challenges.

Overall, the picture painted by TB tallies with that of other witnesses, including those who are less inclined to take responsibility for the war. There is little evidence of a conspiracy or a cover up. On the strategy, legality, planning, the different views are there for people to see and to judge for themselves. Indeed not a great deal has changed since 2005 when Iraq hurt TB’s standing but not so much that he failed to win the general election..    

TB was visibly tense at the beginning of the hearing and very focussed throughout. This was for real. I couldn’t help wondering how many other countries would have put a former leader through such a public interrogation (and how many former Prime Minister’s of the UK would have been willing to be questioned in this way)

The outcome, I suspect, will be that those who hate TB will continue to hate him, or maybe even hate him more because they will feel he has ‘got away with it’ again. In contrast, those who used to like TB may be reminded of why they did and what they miss about him as a leader.

On the lead up to the war itself my view (and, as I was not in Downing Street I have no greater claim to insight than any other observer) is that I trust TB’s motives. But I also think there were failures of governance. Methods of communication, persuasion and decision making acceptable for major domestic policy decisions were on occasions applied to the very different matter of a highly contentious and risky military conflict.

I’m not sure whether if things had been done differently the decisions or outcomes would have changed. What might have done is the level of suspicion and hostility that TB faces not just now, but quite possibly for the rest of his public life.

Share

Tony, Nina, and me …

December 14, 2009 by · 15 Comments
Filed under: Politics, The RSA 

I was going to post about my former boss’s interview with Fern Britton. Tony Blair said that even if had not thought there were WMD he would still have tried to make a case for regime change in Iraq. Whatever we may think of this opinion, it is simply wrong to claim, as many commentators seem to, that this is the same as saying ‘I had decided to invade and made up the WMD threat as a pretext’. That is like saying there is no difference between these two statements: ‘I didn’t rate our office junior and wanted to get rid of him’ and ‘I fabricated the evidence that the office junior raided the petty cash’.

Having said which, it is hard to rebut the criticism of TB that he thinks his own personal conviction is sufficient explanation for a cause or action. TB’s willingness to get to the heart of an issue, make a judgement and stick to it against powerful opposition is one of his strengths. But his unwillingness to listen to reasoned arguments against his conviction is the flip side. As I said in an interview conducted after I came out of Number Ten, about the only time I saw TB admit he’d got anything wrong was when he said he wished he had listened to himself sooner!

But maybe I’m being too political, but anyway what I have I got to add to all the miles of newsprint already out there?

Instead I wanted to share the great news that for our event with Ben Schott last week we had over 2,000 people tuning in for the live stream. Add this to the over 200,000 (rising by 25% a month) downloads a month we now get for our online video lectures, and the fact that we have staged a record-breaking 160 events this year and I hope you agree that our events team deserve a big pat on the back

Not only are they brilliant but they also have to cope with me having all sorts of ideas, very few of which are any good. My latest wheeze is to have an event pairing Alan Milburn, whose report earlier this year showed how little social mobility there is in professions (including those dominated by the public sector) with someone senior at Sainsbury’s or MacDonald’s, both of which are companies with an excellent record of people at the very bottom (burger flippers and trolley pushers) working they way up to be store managers or higher.

‘Why is it some private sector organisations are so much better than the public sector at social mobility?’ That is the working title for the event. When I told our Director  of External Affairs, the awesome Nina Bolognesi, she looked at me as if I was a simpleton. But, dear readers, who do you back? Nina or me?

Share

God, Tony Blair, and human agency

September 8, 2009 by · 16 Comments
Filed under: The RSA 

Last night we kicked off the new season of RSA events, and a pretty good start it was too. My old boss, Tony Blair, was the first speaker in a series of events on faith that we are hosting along with partners Oxfam, Islamic Relief, DFID and World Vision. We even had the internationally acclaimed writer on religion and inter faith activist, Karen Armstrong, in the chair.

I have been questioned by a couple of people on why an organisation like the RSA, founding on enlightenment principles of humanism and rationalism, should be hosting debates on faith. I have three answers:

First, whether non believers such as myself like it or not, faith is an incredibly powerful force in the world; a force for good as TB underlined with his many examples of faith organisations’ role in tackling poverty and disease in Africa and a force for evil as we were vividly reminded yesterday by the conviction of Muslim extremists who had presumably been taught that killing thousands of innocent civilians was a guaranteed path to paradise. At the heart of the inter faith project pursued by Blair and Armstrong is the attempt through practical action to underline a principle common to all world religions, the so-called golden rule of reciprocity: ‘do to others what you would like to be done to you’.

Second, just because one might question the rational basis for faith doesn’t mean one shouldn’t respect it as a source of inspiration. After all, most of us accept the idea of romantic love even though this too could be portrayed as an incoherent and overblown rationalisation for a set of biological needs and urges. Or as the post structuralist French philosopher, Jacques Lacan, memorably put it: ‘love is the term we use to describe the historical delusion that we are no longer alone in the world’.

Third, the nature of human agency is an important area of research and debate for the RSA. It is clear that not just the capacity but also the predisposition to believe in a power or logic beyond human comprehension is hard–wired in human beings. What is more, participation in faith communities reflects a deep seated human need for connectedness based on shared meaning making. This is one of the conclusions of the work which will feature in tonight’s second new season event, in which Professor John Cacioppo will reflect on what he argues is an epidemic of loneliness. Cacioppo’s book – called simply ‘Loneliness’ and co-authored with William Patrick – ends with a quote from the scientist and Darwinian E.O Wilson:

‘We are obliged by the deepest drives of the human spirit to make ourselves more than animated dust. We must have a story to tell about where we came from and why we are here’. 

For myself, I have never found a satisfactory account of religious belief which lies between the incredible notion of a supernatural being overseeing human affairs or a generalised sense of the possibility of good in the world (which I can endorse without needing to believe in God). But instead of using this dichotomy to close down my engagement I find myself increasingly interested in understanding why people I respect and admire see faith as so powerful in their lives.

Share

‘Email-gate': changing culture requires taking responsibility

April 15, 2009 by · 16 Comments
Filed under: Politics 

With the promise to post two blogs today – the second about some fascinating new American research on altruism and social capital – I ask my reader for patience as I return to ‘email-gate’…..

I find from The Guardian this morning that I am part of a coordinated Blairite backlash against Downing Street dirty tricks. It’s news to me. Perhaps I shouldn’t have alluded to the time I was the hapless victim of an alleged McBride briefing. I certainly don’t want to add my voice to the pious chorus coming from people like Frank Field (who was, of course, innocent of the constant briefing against Harriet Harman when the two ministers were at war over welfare reform in Blair’s first administration).

There is a subculture of off-colour humour and irresponsible gossip in politics just as there is in most professions or workplaces. In Westminster it is fed by certain types of special advisors, journalists and politicians; the kind who actually enjoy hanging around the bars of Westminster Palace late at night. When I first got involved in national politics I was one of these people, mistaking cynicism for sophistication, gossip for influence. The problem with McBride was that he put this kind of stuff into a Downing Street email and seemed seriously to think that, despite his position and the source of his wages, he could be involved in establishing and feeding an ‘independent’ scurrilous website.

My criticism of the Brown operation is less about its morals than its effectiveness; as I said yesterday it can seem to be all tactics, no strategy. Today there is anotehr example. Political strategy, which was my job after the 2005 election is all about thinking through consequences: ‘if we do this, the opposition will do that’, ‘if we say this, won’t we be asked that?’ etc. I provoked a major debate in Downing Street in the summer of 2006 about whether Tony Blair should name a date for his departure. I was in favour, others strongly against. We all had to argue through a variety of scenarios in front of each other and ultimately the Boss – who, in the end, decided against my position. But does this kind of searching self-critical debate happen in Downing Street today?

I wonder because Children’s Minister Ed Balls was forced this morning to make an obviously contradictory argument. On the one hand, he stuck to the line that no one had any idea either about the McBride email or about attack briefings from the Brown office now or at any time in the past. On the other hand, he took the high road arguing that this was a chance to reform the whole of our political culture.

He’s right about the seocnd part.  I was drawn into commenting on this affair becuase it is an opportunity  for Labour in particular, and the political class in general, to give up an outdated, failing and discredited poltical culture  in favour of something which might genuinely engage the populace in the major dilemmas the country faces.  But Balls can’t simultaneously assert that McBride was an isolated maverick and that the problem is the system. When a position doesn’t add up like this people sense it is inauthentic, even if they can’t precisely explain why.

The reason Gordon Brown should go further than expressing regret is that he can only have credibility in arguing for change if he is willing to recognise that he and his generation of politicians and advisors (and yes that includes me) have been complicit in a political culture that is now broken. What’s best for Labour right now is what’s best for the country. This is to level with people about the kind of challenges we face and the impossibility of those being properly addressed, let alone overcome, unless new types of leadership are combined with a willingness by people themselves to be engaged, self sufficient, altruistic citizens.

It is still possible for good to come out of the McBride affair but only if Labour’s leaders accept – as all leaders must – that taking responsibility is the necessary precursor to real cultural change.

Share

Older Posts »